"Drunken Sailor" is a sea shanty, also known as "What Shall We Do with a/the Drunken Sailor?"
The shanty was sung to accompany certain work tasks aboard sailing ships, especially those that required a bright walking pace. It is believed to originate in the early 19th century or before, during a period when ships' crews, especially those of military vessels, were large enough to permit hauling a rope whilst simply marching along the deck. With the advent of merchant packet and clipper ships and their smaller crews, which required different working methods, use of the shanty appears to have declined or shifted to other, minor tasks.
"Drunken Sailor" was revived as a popular song among non-sailors in the 20th century, and grew to become one of the best-known songs of the shanty repertoire among mainstream audiences. It has been performed and recorded by many musical artists and appeared in many popular media.
Although the song's lyrics vary, they usually contain some variant of the question, "What shall we do with a drunken sailor, early in the morning?" In some styles of performance, each successive verse suggests a method of sobering or punishing the drunken sailor. In other styles, further questions are asked and answered about different people.
The song shares its tune with the traditional Irish folk song "Óró sé do bheatha abhaile" (Irish pronunciation: [ˈoːɾˠoː ʃeː d̪ˠə ˈvʲahə walʲə], English: "Oh-ro welcome home"), possibly a Jacobite song, as the traditional version mentions Séarlas Óg ("Young Charles" in Irish), referring to Bonnie Prince Charlie and dating the song to the third Jacobite rising of 1745–6. The tune appears as number 1425 in George Petrie's The Complete Collection of Irish Music (1855) under the title Ó ro! ’sé do ḃeaṫa a ḃaile (modern script: Ó ro! ’sé do bheatha a bhaile) and is marked “Ancient clan march.” It can also be found at number 983 (also marked “Ancient Clan March”) and as a fragment at number 1056, titled Welcome home Prince Charley. "Óró sé do bheatha abhaile" was often sung by the Irish Volunteers during the Easter Rising, but with different, non-sectarian lyrics composed by Pádraig Pearse.
The song is No. 322 in the Roud Folk Song Index.
As a shanty
The first published description of the shanty is found in an account of an 1839 whaling voyage out of New London, Connecticut to the Pacific Ocean. It was used as an example of a song that was "performed with very good effect when there is a long line of men hauling together". The tune was noted, along with these lyrics:
Ho! Ho! and up she rises.
Ho! Ho! and up she rises.
Ho! Ho! and up she rises,
Early in the morning.
Although this is the earliest discovered published mention, there is some indication that the shanty is at least as old as the 1820s. In Eckstorm and Smyth's collection Minstrelsy of Maine (published 1927), the editors note that one of their grandmothers, who sang the song, claimed to have heard it used during the task of tacking on the Penobscot River "probably [by the time of the editor's reportage] considerably over a hundred years ago".
Despite these indications of the song's existence in the first half of the 19th century, references to it are rare. They include a reference in a work of fiction from 1855 in which a drunken female cook is portrayed singing,
Hee roar, up she rouses,
What shall we do with the drunken sailor?
A five-verse set of lyrics and tune were published in the third edition of Davis and Tozer's shanty collection, Sailor Songs or 'Chanties'. However, the title did not appear in any of the other major shanty collections or articles of the 19th century.
When John Masefield next published the lyrics in 1906, he called it a "bastard variety" of shanty which was "seldom used"—an assertion supported by the lack of many earlier references. This style of shanty, called a "runaway chorus" by Masefield, and as a "stamp and go" or "walk away" shanty by others, was said to be used for tacking and which was sung in "quick time". The verses in Masefield's version asked what to do with a "drunken sailor", followed by a response, then followed by a question about a "drunken soldier", with an appropriate response.
Capt. W. B. Whall, a veteran English sailor of the 1860s–70s, was the next author to publish on "Drunken Sailor". He claimed that this was one of only two shanties that was sung in the British Royal Navy (where singing at work was generally frowned upon). Moreover, the song had largely gone out of use as a "walk away" shanty when the size of ships' crews was reduced and it was no longer possible to use that working method. The lyrics given by Whall are essentially the same as those from Masefield: about a "drunken sailor", then a "drunken soldier". Significantly, he stated that these were the only lyrics, as evidently the task did not take long to complete.
Early in the morning.
What shall we do with a drunken sailor? [three times] Early in the morning.
Put him in the long-boat and make him bail her. Early in the morning.
What shall we do with a drunken soldier? Early in the morning.
Put him in the guardroom till he gets sober. Early in the morning.
The above-mentioned and other veteran sailors characterized "Drunken Sailor" as a "walk away" shanty, thus providing a possible explanation for why it was not noted more often in the second half of the 19th century. Later sailors' recollections, however, attested that the song continued to be used as a shanty, but for other purposes. Richard Maitland, an American sailor of the 1870s, sang it for song collector Alan Lomax in 1939, when he explained,
Now this is a song that's usually sang when men are walking away with the slack of a rope, generally when the iron ships are scrubbing their bottom. After an iron ship has been twelve months at sea, there's a quite a lot of barnacles and grass grows onto her bottom. And generally, in the calm latitudes, up in the horse latitudes in the North Atlantic Ocean, usually they rig up a purchase for to scrub the bottom.
Another American sailor of the 1870s, Frederick Pease Harlow, wrote in his shanty collection that "Drunken Sailor" could be used when hauling a halyard in "hand over hand" fashion to hoist the lighter sails. This would be in contradistinction to the much more typical "halyards shanties", which were for heavier work with an entirely different sort of pacing and formal structure. Another author to ascribe a function, Richard Runciman Terry, also said it could be used for "hand over hand" hauling. Terry was one of few writers, however, to also state the shanty was used for heaving the windlass or capstan.
As a popular song
"Drunken Sailor" began its life as a popular song on land at least as early as the 1900s, by which time it had been adopted as repertoire for glee singing at Eton College. Elsewhere in England, by the 1910s, men had begun to sing it regularly at gatherings of the Savage Club of London.
The song became popular on land in America as well. A catalogue of "folk-songs" from the Midwest included it in 1915, where it was said to be sung while dancing "a sort of reel". More evidence of lands-folk's increasing familiarity with "Drunken Sailor" comes in the recording of a "Drunken Sailor Medley" (c. 1923) by U.S. Old Time fiddler John Baltzell. Evidently the tune's shared affinities with Anglo-Irish-American dance tunes helped it to become readapted as such, as Baltzell included it among a set of reels.
Classical composers utilized the song in compositions. Australian composer Percy Grainger incorporated the song into his piece "Scotch Strathspey And Reel" (1924). Malcolm Arnold used its melody in his Three Shanties for Woodwind Quintet, Op. 4 (1943).
The glut of writings on sailors' songs and published collections that came starting in the 1920s supported a revival of interest in shanty-singing for entertainment purposes on land. As such, R. R. Terry's very popular shanty collection, which had begun to serve as a resource for renditions of shanties on commercial recordings in the 1920s, was evidently used by the Robert Shaw Chorale for their 1961 rendition. The Norman Luboff Choir recorded the song in 1959 with the uncharacteristic phrasing, "What'll we do...?"
Notable recordings and performances
The song has been widely recorded under a number of titles by a range of performers including being a background song on Nickelodeon TV series, SpongeBob SquarePants, King's Singers, Pete Seeger, The Blaggards, U.K. Subs, and most notably The Irish Rovers. It also forms part of a contrapuntal section in the BBC Radio 4 UK Theme by Fritz Spiegl, in which it is played alongside Greensleeves.
For over 50 years The Irish Rovers have played the song as their usual show-closer. Several of their recordings of the song, sometimes under the name "Weigh Hey and up She Rises" have "gone viral" on YouTube. As a response, the band released the 2012 album, "Drunken Sailor" including the title track and a prequel that tells the earlier life of the 'Drunken Sailor', called "Whores and Hounds".
Don Janse produced an arrangement in the early 1960s which has been included in several choral music anthologies. The arrangement was first recorded by The Idlers, and has been performed by several collegiate groups over the years, including the Yale Alley Cats.
On the television series Seaquest DSV, the shanty is sung by Chief Manilow Crocker (Royce D. Applegate) and crew as they begin repairs on a submarine during the Season 1 Episode "Bad Water" aired 7 November 1993.
A version of the song appears in the 2012 stealth video-game Dishonored. This version is called "The Drunken Whaler" however, tying into the video game's fictional world; where whaling is a prominent and important industry. The verses in this version all result in the subject whaler's death, such as "feed him to the hungry rats for dinner" (a reference to the rat plague that was a major plot point in the title).
Another version of the song by Sean Dagher, Michiel Shrey, and Nils Brown appears in the 2013 action-adventure video game Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag
Another version was recorded in 2018. by Hard Green, on their album Rare Old Mountain dew.
Weigh heigh and up she rises (/Hoo-ray and up she rises)
Weigh heigh and up she rises (/Patent blocks of different sizes)
Weigh heigh and up she rises
Early in the morning
What shall we do with a drunken sailor,
What shall we do with a drunken sailor,
What shall we do with a drunken sailor,
Early in the morning?
Put/chuck him in the long boat 'til he's sober.
Put him in the long-boat and make him bail her.
What shall we do with a drunken soldier?
Put/lock him in the guard room 'til he gets sober.
Put him in the scuppers with a hosepipe on him.
Pull out the plug and wet him all over.
Tie him to the taffrail when she's yardarm under
Heave him by the leg in a runnin' bowline.
Scrape the hair off his chest with a hoop-iron razor.
Give 'im a dose of salt and water.
Stick on his back a mustard plaster.
Keep him there and make 'im bail 'er.
Give 'im a taste of the bosun's rope-end.
What'll we do with a Limejuice skipper?
Soak him in oil till he sprouts a flipper.
What shall we do with the Queen o' Sheba?
What shall we do with the Virgin Mary?
Tie him to the mast and then you flog him.
Keel haul him till he's sober.
Shave his chin with a rusty razor.
Beat 'im o'r wi' a cat-o-nine-tails.
Shave his belly with a rusty razor.
Give 'im a hair of the dog that bit him.
Put him in the bilge and make him drink it.
Put him in bed with the captain's daughter.
Hit him on the head with a drunken soldier
Put him in the back of a paddy wagon (Great Big Sea)
Take him to the pub and get him drunker
Have you seen the Captain's Daughter? (various)
Put him at the wheel of an Exxon tanker. (Or "make him captain of")
A common parody reference to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Book him a room at the Tailhook Convention.
References the 1991 Tailhook scandal.
Make him sing in an Irish Rock band (Sevon Rings)
Lock him in a room with disco music (Schooner Fare – Finnegan's Wake)
Pronunciation of "early"
The word "early" is often pronounced as // URL-eye in modern performances. Publications in the 19th and early 20th century, however, did not note this was the case. Neither the field recordings of Richard Maitland by Alan Lomax (1939) nor those of several veteran sailors in Britain by James Madison Carpenter in the 1920s use this pronunciation. However, opera singer Leonard Warren recorded the song in July 1947 and pronounced URL-eye. Later, on his popular recording of 1956, Burl Ives also pronounced URL-eye. Subsequently, Stan Hugill, whose influential Shanties from the Seven Seas was published in 1961, stated in that work that the word was always pronounced // URL-ay.
- Ó Muirġeasa, Énrí (1915). Céad de Ċeoltaiḃ Ulaḋ. Baile Áṫa Cliaṫ: M. H. Mac Giolla agus a Ṁac. pp. 151, 303. p. 303 87. Óró, ’sé do ḃeaṫa aḃaile (See page 151.) "This little Jacobite relic I got from Nancy Tracey, Co. Tyrone, and also from Cáit Ní Ċeallaċáin, an old woman 90 years of age in Ballor, Fanad, Co. Donegal. It has a catchy, popular air. A refrain somewhat similar to this one was common in Farney, but the song to which it belonged was lost before my time.
"Hó, ró, ró, ’sé do ḃeaṫa un a’ ḃaile,
Hó, ró, ró, ós cionn duine eile ;
Hó, ró, ró, ’sé do ḃeaṫa un a’ ḃaile,
Tá tú amuiġ le ráiṫċe."
- Souchon, Christian (24 July 2010). "Oro! Se Do Bheatha Bhaile". Jacobite Songs. Retrieved 15 December 2012.
- Petrie, George (1903) . Stanford, Charles Villiers (ed.). The Complete Collection of Irish Music. London: Boosey & Co. pp. 251, 268, 356. p. 251, No. 983 Ancient Clan March, p. 268, No. 1056 Welcome home Prince Charley, p. 356, No. 1425 Ó ro! ’sé do ḃeaṫa a ḃaile.
- Sharp, Cecil. 1914. English Folk-Chanteys. Pg. 66.
- Hugill, Stan. 1961. Shanties from the Seven Seas. London.
- Olmsted, F. A. 1841. Incidents of a Whaling Voyage. New York: D. Appleton & Co. pp. 115–116.
- Eckstorm, Fannie Hardy and Mary Winslow Smyth. 1927. Minstrelsy of Maine: Folk-songs and Ballads of the Woods and the Coast. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin.
- Dickens, Charles ed. 1855. "Two Dinner Failures". Household Words No. 256 (15 September 1855): 164–168.
- Davis, J. and Ferris Tozer. 1891. Sailor Songs or 'Chanties'. Third edition (enlarged). Boosey & Co.
- Masefield, John. 1906. A Sailor's Garland. Methuen & Co.
- Whall, Captain W. B. 1910. Sea Songs and Shanties. Brown, Son and Ferguson.
- e.g. Williams, James H. "The Sailors' 'Chanties'". The Independent (8 July 1909):76–83.
- Various Artists. 2004. American Sea Songs & Shanties. Duncan Emrich, ed. The Library of Congress, Archive of Folk Culture. Rounder, CD, 18964-1519-2.
- Harlow, Frederick Pease. 1962. Chanteying Aboard American Ships. Barre, Mass.: Barre Publishing Co.
- Terry, Richard Runciman. 1921. The Shanty Book, Part I. London: J. Curwen & Sons.
- Malden, Charles Herbert. 1905. Recollections of an Eton Colleger: 1898–1902. Eton College: Spotswood and Co. p. 73
- "Truthful James". 1902. "Camp. A Prospect". Eton College Chronicle 977 (29 July 1902): 137.
- Bullen, Frank. T. and W. F. Arnold. 1914. Songs of Sea Labour. London: Orpheus Music Publishing.
- Pound, Louise. 1915. "Folk-song of Nebraska and the Central West: A Syllabus". Nebraska Academy of Sciences Publications 9(3). p. l152.
- Robert Shaw Chorale. 1961. Sea Shanties. Living Stereo. LP.
- Norman Luboff Choir, The. 1959. Songs of the British Isles. Columbia. LP.
- Belfast News Letter, Feb. 2012 "Irish Rovers Return with Titanic Tribute" – http://www.newsletter.co.uk/news/regional/irish-rovers-return-with-titanic-tribute-1-3557071 Archived 2014-02-20 at the Wayback Machine
- Belfast Telegraph, Feb. 2012 "Video: Irish Rovers release Titanic tribute song" – http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/entertainment/music/news/video-irish-rovers-release-titanic-tribute-song-28719763.html Archived 21 July 2015 at the Wayback Machine
- MarketWatch, 28 January 2015 "The 11 best over the top tunes from NFL films" – https://nypost.com/2015/01/28/the-11-best-over-the-top-tunes-from-nfl-films/ Archived 20 October 2017 at the Wayback Machine
- Wheatley, Dennis. 1936. They Found Atlantis. Hutchinson & Co. P.180.
- Seeger, Pete. 1961. American Favorite Ballads Vol. 4. Folkways Records. LP.
- Ives, Burl. 1956. Down to the Sea in Ships. Decca. LP.
- Rise Up Singing (?)
- This lyric appears to have been circulated among folk song singers after Oscar Brand's bawdy song "The Captain's Daughter", on Boating Songs and All that Bilge (Elektra, 1960, LP). The chorus runs, "What do we do with the captain's daughter...earl-eye in the morning?"
- Charles S. Doskow. 2008. "What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor? Reprehensibility, the Exxon Valdez and Punitive Damages" Express
- "Data" (PDF). naxos.com. Archived (PDF) from the original on 8 December 2015. Retrieved 5 December 2015.